In an interview with BBC earlier this year, J.J. Abrams explained that his approach to the new Star Wars films centered more on what he thought was authentic to the characters and less on what he thought the fans might want to see. In doing so, he explicitly drew a contrast between having an authentic creative vision and trying to divine the preferences of fans. It’s not immediately clear that there is any such dichotomy between a well-crafted film and a film which caters to the whims and desires of the fan base. While a quality creative vision is paramount, is J.J. Abrams correct to draw a contrast between what fans want and what’s best for the films? Despite the sometimes pejorative usage of the terms fanboy and fangirl, aren’t they occasionally correct in their vision and isn’t supporting the fandom a sign of an attentive franchise? We say yes.
We often hear the term “fan service” used to describe a certain kind of pandering to the fans, usually involving the display of flesh. The archetypal example in Star Wars is Princess Leia’s metal bikini in Return of the Jedi, but fan service of that sort can be seen across various types of media: from comic books and character illustrations to racy writing.
It’s often used to describe women – usually fan favorites – in skimpy outfits, but it can also be used to describe men in similar conditions or even unnecessary plotlines featuring romance or violence. The defining characteristic of fan service is that it is gratuitous and it is geared towards pleasing fans, and therefore driving sales of a product.
We asked our friends and colleagues for a word that describes the opposite of fan service, which would be something along the lines of being attentive to the needs and concerns of fans: something more than dismissiveness and less than pandering. Nobody could come up with a handy term, and responses ranged from “good writing” to “being thoughtful and treating your fans like intelligent people.” It’s telling that this sort of thing is so uncommon that it doesn’t have a label, but we argue that it’s crucially important for successful franchise work. For lack of a better term and to avoid circumlocuitousness (spellcheck, if that isn’t a word, it ought to be!), we’ll stick with fan engagement.
What is fan service exactly?
Since we’re talking about a continuum between a good level of engagement with fans and fan service, we have to reject extremes at the outset. Our position is not that the display of any sort of flesh, that any romantic plotline, or that any use of a fan-favorite character is necessarily fan service. It’s a question of degree, and perhaps more importantly, a question of purpose. We state a proposition that we assume is not terribly original, yet it becomes all the more surprising that blatant fan service still exists in spite of it. We propose that the difference between fan service and fan engagement is that fan service involves pandering to the audience in a way that does not actually enhance the story or creative version – in other words, the paramount difference between the two is actually more about purpose than degree.
This is an important distinction, especially when it relates to sexuality or nudity. Franchises – especially those in the science fiction or fantasy genres – often feel the need to exploit sexuality in order to make their content more palatable to mainstream audiences. Not only is this assumption unwarranted with the success of science fiction and/or fantasy blockbusters such as the Star Wars films themselves, or the more recent Trek reboot and the Game of Thrones television adaptation, not only does it offend both casual and hardcore fans and followers of the same, but it is often thematically and narratively unnecessary. This is the key: while some would argue that all sexuality and/or nudity is obscene, unseemly, and unnecessary, we argue that it is only that which is pandering that is problematic. It is that pandering that creates a host of extra problems which have long plagued media properties: problems of sexism and the male gaze, issues of privilege and objectification, and – for some – even issues of moral decay. Why is pandering problematic? Because fan service is – by its nature – unnecessary. It is when creators and designers make a decision to make a thing “sexy” merely for the purpose of pleasing fans who drive sales, and for no other underlying goal. This underlines how cheap and instrumental such sexuality is, which is why so many of these problems (each of which could probably sustain its own article) get reinforced: because said sexuality and nudity is monetized, and that is its only value.
We do not advocate censorship or bowdlerization, however. Ours is not a moral point, and we do not wish to see a Victorian ethos in the Star Wars franchise (unless that involves a steampunk aesthetic, which is almost always cool – but it too, can be overdone). Sex, nudity, revealing costumes – all of them can serve vital narrative purposes, can establish a dramatic setting, and can be used creatively. In our modest opinion, the problem has never been with their presence in franchise work but that they were used for pretty exploitative purposes. Note well, creative types, that a narrative purpose does not simply mean that a character dresses in a skimpy outfit because it “empowers” him or her (but note also that such a thing is also not impossible: such people do exist, but make sure it is about the character and not about pleasing the fans who will buy your work!).
Not just sex
Some of the friends we surveyed used the term “fan service” to exclusively refer to the sexualization of characters and scenes, while other sorts of pandering were called just that – pandering. We subscribe to the broader view of fan service, which includes gratuitous violence, gratuitous romance, or even gratuitous character appearances. For us, it’s never just been about sex: but anything that is primarily geared at pleasing the fans to drive sales, at the expense of narrative concerns.
Fans often complain of unnecessary love triangles, and romance plotlines are often stretched out beyond all reason in order to drive sales from fans who favor relationships between differing couples (beware: few wars leave fewer casualties than shipper wars – appeal to fans by inserting relationships at your risk, creative types, as people have been known to leave franchises when their ship sinks!). This is a problem that has plagued more than just franchise work: network television soap operas and even a few sitcoms have long been known to use this method of fan service, and entire series have spawned out of romantic fan service.
Let’s get concrete. We’ll use Boba Fett as an example. His very existence as a character has to do with his popularity with the fans: he began as a random character in the Holiday Special, had a small role in The Empire Strikes Back, and drove such action figure sales that he had a sizeable role in the beginning part of Return of the Jedi. Then he died. But he was shortly revived by the Expanded Universe, and continued to play a role into the very post-ROTJ Legacy of the Force series as well as a role in the Star Wars prequels and associated comics and video games (to the point that the character Jango Fett was created to tap into his fan base while the actual character was too young to be fighting). Boba Fett is incredibly popular, and that has caused him to appear in settings where he might not properly belong. Some have protested his inclusion in the Legacy of the Force novels, while others have argued that his story arc in those novels is well-written and compelling enough to warrant his inclusion aside from his popularity. As we have not read that series ourself, we could not possibly comment. We will observe that sometimes the line is difficult to draw: the most excellent comic by the most excellent John Ostrander – Agent of the Empire – featured what at first struck us as an annoying bit of fan service: the introduction of Boba Fett for no reason than to justify his placement on the cover of the comic. Yet as the narrative unfolded, it turned out that Fett did have a role to play in the story. Did that mean the financial considerations of his placement were out of the creators’ minds? Of course not – but we acknowledge that business considerations are important and will inevitably play a role. We just ask for some restraint and discipline.
It’s a fine line to draw, and the very nature of franchise work is that inevitably someone, somewhere, will object to something as inappropriate, or as pandering. The key is to have honest motivations and intentions. Give fans some credit: they can tell when they’re being pandered to. Some fans are fine with that and would like to be pandered to, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that (but as noted, there can be problems with objectification of people, trivialization of violence, misleading and unhealthy views of romance, et cetera) but plenty of fans will resent it.
What is fan engagement?
So how is fan engagement done right? This is a harder question. Giving fans what they want is sometimes exactly what is called for: Marvel’s The Avengers succeeded largely in part because it was what everyone wanted and expected from a superhero film of its nature – but did not pander, because its entire premise was that it was a fun superhero film that did not take itself terribly seriously. If it had attempted to cash in on Nolan Batman films’ narrative weight, it would have probably struck viewers as artificial and not have succeeded as well as it did.
The best recent examples of fan engagement from Star Wars at our disposal come from recent Expanded Universe offerings. From novels to reference materials, the Star Wars EU has been getting it right lately. A few years ago, Matthew Stover penned Luke Skywalker And the Shadows of Mindor – its campy title foretold what the story would end up being, which was essentially a love letter to the fans of the old and sometimes maligned Bantam-published EU of the 90s. It was retro in a way that appealed to nostalgic fans, but in a way that strongly enhanced rather than undermined the nature of the story: hammy and over the top was exactly what the story and its villain called for, and Stover delivered in spades. The fans that enjoy Star Wars reference materials inhabit a bit of a niche in the Star Wars fandom, but that hasn’t stopped EU writers from delivering. Writers such as Dan Wallace (writer of The Jedi Path and The Book of Sith) and Jason Fry (The Essential Atlas, alongside Dan Wallace, and The Essential Guide to Warfare, alongside Paul Urquhart) have written reference books that had glitzy and glamorous designs, and the Jedi/Sith books even featured little inserts and toys to drive their appeal. They were well-publicized books which aimed at a mainstream audience (as far as Star Wars fans go), but the authors of those works also regularly conversed with the niche fans of EU arcana on messageboards and social media sites in order to capture the pulse of that segment of the fandom: they were consequently able to both create works geared at selling well but showed by their conduct and writing that the views of the fans were very important to them. Even the StarWars.com blogs have joined in on positive fan engagement – a series of articles written by individuals such as Abel Peña, Rich Handley, Pablo Hidalgo, James McFadden, and many others have added both new lore and shed light on previously unknown facets of the Star Wars mythos and moviemaking process in ways that have fascinated and delighted fans of such: and they’re doing so on a completely free website feature.
Fan engagement is good. We want to see creators more responsive to fans, but in a way that showcases their appreciation of both the franchise they work in as well as the fans of that franchise. Fans can be pretty harsh critics and some people have said some pretty awful things about people who work in the Star Wars franchise, but ultimately we’re all seeking the same thing: the best Star Wars franchise we can have. We hope, looking forward, that J.J. Abrams realizes that it is perfectly ok to approach his work as a Star Wars fan – as we know he is – without undermining his creative integrity or that of the franchise. After all, many of the individuals we have praised in this article are fans themselves: this is how we know the franchise is in safe hands with them. That’s not to say that fans always make the right decisions or what fans want is always the best, but creators who are fans themselves and who think of the fans as actual people are probably in a better position to make those decisions. Mr. Abrams just needs to set the right course between too much pandering and too little: but that’s what astromech droids are for. You can never have too much Artoo Detoo.